Christian Siriano became the first fashion designer to ever speak at UT on Nov. 5. The Visual Arts Committee of the Central Program Council invited Siriano to give an Art Talk lecture where he discussed his education, "Project Runway" appearance and progression in the industry after winning season 4 of the reality competition show.
Managing Editor Melodi Erdogan had the opportunity to speak to Siriano before his lecture and asked him about his initial draw to fashion, his dream client and his debut fragrance.
Melodi Erdogan: Do you have any ties to Knoxville or the East Tennessee area?
Christian Siriano: I don't, nothing specific. It's my first time here. I've been to Nashville, but I've never been to Knoxville. We have retailers that we sell to there, but I take a trip every couple of months.
ME: What made you want to pursue fashion design?
CS: I really started when I was with my sister growing up because she was a ballet dancer. I really just remember being backstage with makeup, hair and beauty, and I loved seeing the fantasy world of ballet and the changes from watching a dancer in her warm up clothes to putting on her costume to being this elegant persona. I loved that idea and that's how women get dressed every day, you know, they're normal people but what you put on is what you express yourself with. I just loved that and I think that inspired me to want to make clothes for women to wear and shoes and bags and all of those things, to really give a person a voice with a little bit of showmanship.
ME: So would you say that most of your inspiration is drawn from ballet?
CS: Sometimes, but it can really come from anywhere now. I can be inspired by a trip I took, I can be inspired by the Russian opera, even though I've never been to the Russian opera, it could even be my imagination. It changes every season. We're working on our 13th collection so we have a lot of different collections to be inspired by and it's always changing which is really exciting, it's the best part about the job.
ME: What is your favorite part of fashion design?
CS: I think the start-to-finish process is so cool to see. You really see a sketch come to life in a real garment, I think that's the most interesting thing. I also just think that making women feel great about themselves is fabulous. That's the best thing you can do.
ME: What would you say is your signature style?
CS: Personally? I guess my signature style would be my hair and my glasses because I never really change it too much. But I'm not really personally into fashion for myself because I feel like I work at it all day for other people. I never really think about it too much, I'd rather just dress other people other than myself.
ME: What about with your collections?
CS: I think our signature always has to have that kind of dream like feeling to it. Whatever collection it is, I want people to dream about it when they're seeing a beautiful gown or a great cocktail dress or a cool jacket. I want them to think a little bit about the fantasy, and how they would live when they're wearing it.
ME: And you have a fragrance coming out early next year. Does that fantasy, dream-like theme go along with that also?
CS: Definitely. It will hopefully become a classic fragrance. But other than that, the bottle is very interesting, the fragrance is interesting and I think it will be really cool to have it done. It's not really done yet, it's all very new. It won't be out until next year so it's still in the process, but it will be pretty.
ME: How would you describe the scent?
CS: It's a little sweet, a little spicy. It's feminine, but not floral. I think a lot of girls and women can actually wear it without feeling overpowered.
ME: What style advice do you have for people who still don't know how to pinpoint their own personal style?
CS: If you're not a super stylish person, you should find that signature piece that really works for you and that also is dressing for your body type. If you look great in A-line dresses, that should be your look, you shouldn't try to wear a mini skirt the next day. I feel like many people have to figure out what works on their body and then that becomes their signature. Also, take risks. I love when girls wear crazy shoes and have interesting jewelry on and just go for it. Especially also when you're young, that's the best time to play with it.
ME: What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment in your career?
CS: There are so many great things that I've gotten to do, but I think the biggest accomplishment has been to really turn something that I started very young, and turned it into a real growing business. We sell clothes to women and retailers around the world. That was always the goal, and I think seeing women go into a store, pick out a dress, be able to purchase it and wear it to an event the next night. That's the best feeling.
ME: Who is your dream client, dead, alive or fictional?
CS: I don't really think about dream people. That's why I feel I've been so fortunate to dress so many great people because I try not to push for it. I never woke up and said, I have to dress Rihanna this year, because if you don't put that in your head, when it happens, it feels so amazing. But there are definitely actresses and musicians that I love, from Cate Blanchett to Drew Barrymore to Kate Mara. So many different people, but I think it should happen organically.
ME: How would you describe your designs to someone who has never seen them before?
CS: If you're unfamiliar with the brand, what we're trying to create is a designer, luxury evening business. And that really can range. From blouses to great dresses to cool jackets. We really want great dressing and I think that what it is that the clothes are a little bit of fantasy but always wearable, that's the biggest goal for me and my world. I want someone to see this and be inspired by a dress that is something that she might not ever wear to begin with, but if she tries it on and lives in it a little bit, she'll really want to live her life in it. Because that's always a thing, I design for women who are really living their life in clothes. They go to work every day, they go to events, they go to parties, that's what we all do. I think that's the goal.
ME: How do you design your fall/winter collection differently than your spring/summer collection?
CS: You definitely really think about the seasons. You have to think about, okay, we sell to these stores and they're in these climates and what women want to wear when it's warm out and what they want to feel when they're putting away their black dress after new year's, so I think about that. Color is such an easy way to do that, but I don't' know. It definitely is a climate thing, you know we're not going to do chunky knits for spring, I feel like we want people to feel comfortable with what they're wearing for the seasons.
ME: What was one obstacle that you experienced in college that you revisit often?
CS: I really graduated from school in London, moved to New York City, I had no money and I couldn't get a job anywhere. It was really hard, and I think that, I obviously worked hard at it and did what I could, and I got an internship at Marc Jacobs even though I didn't want it. I didn't want to be an intern, I wanted a job. So I think that I overcame it and kept on pushing myself to do new things and when I auditioned for "Project Runway," I found out about it the night before. I had no idea what it was, I had no idea what I was doing, and I just went for it. I think that's the biggest thing. When you have nothing to lose, then you should go for everything. I think that's what I've tried to do from the very beginning and until now. We still have obstacles to overcome, but a little less now. Hopefully.
ME: What advice did you receive in college that made you want to pursue fashion even further?
CS: In college, I really think that the teachers I had were really inspiring because they really pushed me and the other students to be their most creative they can be. I always remember teachers telling us to be overly creative and to overthink their minds and to really push themselves because you can always make something simpler, but if you start at fantasy, you can work your way down. It's very hard to start with something very plain and generic and work your way up from it, in a creative abstract way. I've always started that way, sometimes when we're making a collection we think about the overall fantasy idea of it first and then we figure out how to make great dresses from that idea that we can sell and that will be wearable so I think that was the best advice I've ever gotten. And I know it's such a cliché thing to say to be yourself, but you really have to be. Whether people love you or hate you, you have to find your little niche and find your own voice, and I think that's what I try to do.
CS: Living in Europe was such an amazing experience in general because people just think differently there about fashion and clothing and the arts. They think more creatively, and I think that's what I got to do at McQueen and Westwood. It was such a creative environment; we were making things that were just so interesting and different that I've never seen before. So that was such an amazing thing and I think that they really push creative thinking. That was really cool. When I first moved to New York, I almost got a job at Ann Taylor and I would have been designing woven blouses every day, all day, which would have been disastrous.
ME: What advice do you have for aspiring fashion designers?
CS: For the most part, I really want to chat about struggles and triumphs and things you can overcome. I think what I'm kind of going to explain tonight is that you really have to work at what you love and really push at it and there are going to be obstacles to overcome but you have to keep going. I think it would be a shame to ever hold back that creative world that you want to live in and just have a normal nine to five job, and I think that's what our generation is all about. We're all about creating new things and new worlds.